Filler words – 2019 edition

Self-improvement projects that require us to break old habits are hard. Such projects aren’t settled in a few weeks – instead, I think of them as 3 year construction projects.

One of the many gifts I’ve received from writing everyday here for ~11 years is the ability to work on a few such 3 year construction projects. Writing here forces a level of accountability that I’d otherwise not have. But, while I’ve made visible progress on many self improvement projects, an area where I’ve repeatedly failed is in eliminating filler words.

I was in a conversation recently where I thought I used more filler words – “kinda” and “I think” – than actual words. It was disappointing to hear myself stammer and stutter in my attempts to make a point.

As I reflected on that conversation this weekend, I was reminded of a post on the topic from Seth’s blog that inspired me to revisit this habit a few years back. A few of my favorite bits from the post –

“For a million years, people have been judging each other based on voice. Not just on what we say, but on how we say it.

I heard a Pulitzer-prize winning author interviewed on a local radio show. The tension of the interview caused an “um” eruption—your words and your approach sell your ideas, and at least on this interview, nothing much got sold.”

“Persuade yourself that the person you’re talking to will give you the floor, that he won’t jump in the moment you hesitate. You actually don’t have to keep making sounds in order to keep your turn as the speaker. The fastest speaker is not the speaker who is heard best or even most.

Next step: First on your own, eventually practicing with friends, replace the “um” with nothing. With silence.”

“Talk as slowly as you need to. Every time you want to insert a podium-holding stall-for-time word, say nothing instead. Merely pause.”

“You’re not teaching yourself to get rid of “um.” You’re replacing the um with silence. You’re going slow enough that this isn’t an issue.”

“Our default assumption is that people who choose their words carefully are quite smart. Like you.”

Communicating constructively and with clarity is one of my 2019 themes. Unlike in past attempts, I intend to stick with the filler words this time till it gets solved.

Fourth time’s a charm, I hope.

See you in 2022.

Collective notification log

NYT reporter Katie Rosman shared a screenshot she found of a teacher who had her students turn up their phone volumes in class and create a collective record of notifications they received.

I wonder what this chart would look like if we, as co-workers and family members, did this exercise at important meetings and family meals.

And, perhaps more importantly, what if we made it a point to do it periodically?

(H/T: Greg’s “Cofounder Weekly” newsletter that brings together a collection of interesting/fun tweets on tech/entrepreneurship)

Mailing in the last bit

I recently bought two pairs of jeans. That’s a once-in-eighteen-or-twenty-four-months event in our household. So, we planned a morning trip over the holidays to an outlet store (we’re fans of 7 for all Mankind if you’re looking for comfortable daily wear jeans :)) 40 minutes away, tried a bunch, and wrapped it up.

Of course, there was the small matter of alterations remaining. So, I picked a store that was open and relied on them to get it right. It would have helped to show up there with an existing pair of jeans so we could ensure they got the length right. But, I didn’t. I figured altering these jeans should be simple enough.

It turns out it wasn’t.

Despite explicitly requesting them not to cut the extra cloth away, they did. And, after I made my third visit today, I’m beginning to realize this purchase might just be wasted.

Every once a while, we do a lot of hard work on a project to get it to 90%. But, just as we’re about to get to the last bit, a new shiny project pops up. And, since our 90% project is, well, 90% of the way, why not just mail in the last bit?

In one word, don’t.

Skills, traits, and values in hiring

We were in conversation with Lea Hickman, a former VP of Product at Adobe and Invision, yesterday and asked her about her reflections on hiring over the past three decades. She said the biggest change was moving from hiring for past experience/hard skill fit to hiring entirely for folks who enjoyed collaborating, exhibited an appetite for continuous learning, and demonstrated grit.

This was fascinating for 2 reasons. I found it interesting that her hiring criteria evolved from a focus on “intercept” to a focus on “slope.”

And, second, it reminded me of Ray Dalio’s insistence that most conventional hiring managers have their priorities backward because they insist on testing skills instead of understanding how the candidate’s abilities and values fit with the role.

The value of inspirational leadership

In a post just before Christmas, I’d written about the importance of working with managers who believe in us. The impetus for that post was watching the highlights of a Manchester United game under the new interim manager which saw the team hit 5 goals for the first time in 5 years.

That match, it turned out, was a watershed moment. Under the leadership of the interim manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Manchester United went on an impressive winning streak – 7 consecutive games, 8 consecutive away games, and victories against top rivals. Through this process, we learnt that Solskjaer wasn’t just a club legend brought in to tide the team through the rest of the season. He was an astute manager and an inspirational leader.

While he’s exceeded all expectations so far, he faced the biggest challenge of his reign yesterday. His only defeat thus far came in the European Champions League against heavyweights Paris Saint Germain. He lost two of his best players to injuries in the first half and the team lost 2-0 in the first leg.

So, he headed to the second leg facing a task that had eluded 106 other teams who lost 2-0 in the first leg in the knock out stages. In the world’s elite football tournament, no one made their way back at 2-0. But, that was not all. He also had 10 senior players out of his 22 member squad injured. So, he fielded a make-shift team with 4 teenage substitutes – all of whom had never played a game in the Champions League for Manchester United. And, to top it off, he’d lost his talisman – midfielder Paul Pogba – as he was suspended after two yellow card fouls in the first leg.

Against all odds, the team won 3-1 and are through to the quarter finals. They rode their luck, they took their chances, and they made it.

This victory was a great reminder of the value of inspirational leadership to me. United were given a 6.7% chance by the bookmakers at the start of the game. But, Solskjaer got every member of the team to believe in their own capabilities, to keep faith in each other, and to dig deep and find that extra bit of energy and resolve when they most needed it.

When that happens, individuals and teams are capable of overcoming absurd odds.

Self made and some fascinating research on privilege

There’s been a fair bit of media outcry (in the United States) on all sides of the aisle around wealth of late. The issue at the heart of most of the outcry is that it seems wealthy folks, with few exceptions, want to be termed self made. And, no one (again – with few exceptions) wants to acknowledge the role privilege played in their success.

Amidst all this noise, The Atlantic shared an important interview with two British researchers who decided to immerse themselves in the cultures of workplaces in four settings – a TV-broadcasting company, a multinational accounting firm, an architecture firm, and the world of self-employed actors. Here are two ways in which they found privilege to show up.

First, financial cushion enabled actors to take low paying jobs to get their start while also enabling others to take important unpaid internships or to live in a city like London where there are more opportunities. Imagine attempting to do any of this with the pressure of having to support a family or pay back debt.

Second, at work, they found it easier to find sponsors who found themselves reminded of themselves while also finding it easier to understand the unwritten norms that folks who are relatively unexposed struggled with.

Of course, this won’t make for a popular media story. Forbes, for example, has a category in their billionaire lists called “Self made who got a head start from wealthy parents and moneyed background.”

But, this research is a start. In time, I’m hopeful we’ll begin to see a lot more data that points to the massive role privilege plays in success. We need to stop downplaying its role so as to build systems that result in broader equity and access.

It will take time. But, I’m optimistic we’ll get there.

PS: I haven’t read this yet – but the authors mentioned above have written a book called “The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged

PPS: A reminder on how I think about privilege and success.

Trading problems and progress

Difficult problems presented by life don’t go away when we make a big decision or two. Instead, our decisions just enable us to trade one set of problems for another.

Progress, then, is all about trading problems we don’t like working on with problems we don’t mind (or even enjoy) working on.

No problems isn’t an option. Better problems is.

Acceptable error

Our Table Tennis coach used to have a rule when we were learning how to hit a top spin forehand – hit the ball out if you must but don’t let the ball hit the net.

Hitting the net, in his mind, was a result of a weak attempt. He knew we’d make plenty of mistakes on our journey to learn how to hit the top spin right. And, he made it clear that he’d rather have us try an expansive stroke and fail – that was an acceptable error.

It turns out that the acceptable error concept is a useful tool in helping us accelerate our learning, execute better, and be kinder to ourselves. Imagine you are running an important project for the next three months. There is no way you’ll walk out of the experience knowing you’ve done a perfect job. There is no perfect job. You’ll always have some constructive feedback.

What would you rather the feedback be? For example, would you rather the feedback be about your propensity to go fast? Or, would it be about your desire to ship with the small details taken care of?

If you decide that erring on the side of speed is an acceptable error, for example, it’ll do two things.

First, it’ll bring a lot of clarity in your day-to-day execution. When push comes to shove, you’ll know to prioritize speed and you’ll walk away with lessons from consistently doing so.

Second, once the project is over, you’ll also know to expect feedback about your focus on speed. When you know to expect it, it won’t sting as much.

Acceptable error, as I’ve come to appreciate, is just another way of expressing strategy. Every strategy has its downsides. But, if chosen well, it’ll help us build on our strengths, learn, and provide clarity as we execute.

Said clarity is worth a lot.

Avocado toast

This might just be the first ever A Learning a Day food recipe. I thought it fitting to write an ode to the awesomeness that is Avocado toast. If you haven’t tried it yet, I hope this post helps.

We discovered Avocado toast thanks to a close friend who made it for us during a trip in December. It has become a weekend breakfast staple since. We love it because it is easy to make, has a long list of health benefits, and is filling. It is especially good when you have physical activities lined up after breakfast as you don’t get hungry for a few hours.

Here are the steps involved –

1. Buy an avocado. :-) When you do see an avocado at the store, look for avocados that feel soft when you hold and press them. Softness = indicator of ripeness. If you aren’t planning to eat the avocado for a few days, go for the hard ones. And, refrigeration helps lock in ripeness for 4-5 days.

2. Cut the avocado into halves, remove the seed, and extract the fruit with a spoon. This is quick and straightforward with ripe avocados.

3. Add some salt and pepper for a simple version of the spread. For more interesting versions, try some mix of lemon juice, oregano, and chili flakes.

4. Toast your bread, feel free to boil or cook an egg, and enjoy your breakfast.

(Photo source: IBakeHeShoots)

Helicopter parenting

Quartz recently featured an interesting article on Helicopter Parenting recently that I’ve been mulling. Economists Matthias Doepke of Northwestern University and Fabrizio Zilibotti of Yale University point to economic inequality as the reason for helicopter parenting. Below are a few of the highlights –


The pair look at how inequality and parenting styles around the world have evolved over time. This allows them to unpack why parenting seems so different in some places—why, for example, the Danes let their kids play with axes, while Americans won’t even let kids walk to school until they are 11. Their most important finding? ”Across countries, the intensity of parenting lines up very closely with economic inequality,” said Doepke. Parents get more intense as a country gets more unequal over time, and grow more permissive if the country gets more equal.”

Contrary to popular stereotypes, those who succumb to the lure of helicopter parenting aren’t hysterical or illogical. Nor are Swedes, whose children have more freedom, better people; they simply live in more equal societies, which means parents can be more confident that their kids will have opportunities regardless of how much they push. It is easier to get into university in Sweden than it is in the US, for example. The differences between universities’ standings is not too big, and the consequences for not attending university are not as great as the US, where the gaps can be huge. 

The consequences of the economists’ conclusions are worrisome. Even though helicopter parents may be acting rationally, the collective impact of the wealthy frantically working to ensure their kids stay ahead only exacerbates inequality, further entrenching segregation of opportunity for children.

“Parenting has become very unequal,” said Doepke. “It’s one of the big social problems we have because we have high inequality now, and if kids don’t get the same starting conditions, it’s just going to get worse and worse in the future.”

Wisely, their prescription is not to fix the helicopter parents, but the institutions that are perpetuating inequality. They recommend that governments offer high-quality affordable or free child care to give less advantaged children better chances, and instate apprenticeships and vocational training programs that will give kids who don’t go to to college more professional opportunities. They also encourage governments to consider that parents and students respond to the organization of school systems, including high-stakes tests. If there is a high-stakes test, parents will help kids to prepare and kids will inevitably end up more stressed out because of this.


This was a fascinating piece. There are lots of interesting takeaways – I’ll share my top two. First, it is further illustration of the idea that the economics of a place shapes its culture (The Japanese, before the nation went through their economic boom, were described as lazy by an Australian consultant) .

And, second, the less the social mobility, the more the effect of privilege in a person’s success. After family and country of birth, education is arguably the largest bestower of privilege. As a result, helicopter parenting to ensure kids get into the best educational institutions possible is a perfectly logical outcome.